Huffington Post: #JusticeForNoura

Huffington Post: #JusticeForNoura

What do we know about Noura Hussein? The 19-year-old Sudanese woman is currently on death row in Omdurman, Sudan, for killing a man in self-defense. She was convicted of murdering her husband, who raped her on their “honeymoon.”

The Guardian: Is taking down white men like Josh Denny always a victory for equality?

The Guardian: Is taking down white men like Josh Denny always a victory for equality?

Humiliation, belittlement, dehumanisation: these are the tactics the oppressor uses. We need to be better than that.

Tyranny and Free Speech: Essay in The Saturday Paper

Tyranny and Free Speech: Essay in The Saturday Paper

“The colliding of opinions will only lead to the emergence of truth if the force behind both is equal, if the playing field is level, if there is a commitment to truth rather than to an agenda that is self-serving.”

Riveting Reads: Wednesday 21st March, 2018

Riveting Reads: Wednesday 21st March, 2018

Interesting articles on issues ranging from a small town fighting for asylum seekers to stay, to Cambridge Analytica.

This author thinks talking about structural inequality is 'disempowering'. I, obviously, disagree.

Photo of Peter Thiel  via TechSpot

Photo of Peter Thiel via TechSpot

I came across an article recently that articulated a view I've heard before. Like others before them, the author makes a false equivalence: 

...this idea of agency is a controversial one today...We speak of privileges and systemic biases. We talk of our problems as if they are intractable, overwhelming and malevolently created. Even on the extreme right, there is an obsession with biological differences between sexes and races, about whether one gender or another is naturally better at this or that. Again, these are simply averages that have nothing to do with individuals. Our focus on it all, from either side, is a way of subtly erasing agency. We emphasise where we are disempowered rather than opportunities for empowerment.

The author seems to believe argument that highlighting structural inequalities, biases and systemic obstacles is disempowering, and rather focus should be on the opportunities available.

I disagree.

Now, I must make the disclaimer that I do speak and write publicly about bias and privilege, so it would obviously be in my interest to challenge this charge.  However, it is important to realise that not all norms and challenges are the same, and these are far from binary conversations. 

Peter Thiel (as the article pointed out), a billionaire who was upset at what was written about him in the press, was told that 'there was nothing he could do about it' because of the norms within media. He then went on to do something about it, and this is the example of 'high levels of agency' the author is asking us to consider, and perhaps emulate.  It should be noted the author does not condone Thiel's actions per se.  

However, being written about in the press and then taking that news outlet down is not quite the same as a systemic bias against women, or structural inequalities due to a history of slavery and colonisation.  There are reams of studies that look at the structural nature of these inequalities, and some of them are overwhelming, intractable and malevolently created. To dismiss a focus on tackling structural inequality seems inconsiderate, illogical and ill-informed.

The reality is, folk who are marginalised have been succeeding in spite of these inequalities and biases.  You want to know about agency?  Talk to first generation migrant parents. I was unaware of the true impact of cognitive biases and structural inequality growing up because my parents refused to entertain that as an excuse, like many other migrant kids I knew. In fact, any systemic issue would be framed - on purpose - as an opportunity for growth. Work ten times as hard, because things are tougher for women / people of colour / Muslims, I was told.  The way my parents brought my brother and I up was to believe that our agency would overcome all.  And it did - until it didn't - but that's a story for another time... 

Yes, individual agency is something we can control, and perhaps even underestimate. But talk of systemic and structural problems does not automatically mean that individual agency is disregarded, and does not have to be inherently disempowering. In fact, that fact that the public discourse has shifted to include the structural challenges is a step in the right direction. It means we are shifting to a place where we change the world to fit people, rather than people to fit the world.   

Individually, we can control our mindsets, and do our best to fully utilise our agency.  Not everything is within an individual's control however.  Rather than dismiss that reality, those with more access and agency should do what they can to level the playing field.  And don't say it can't be done... ;) 

Sexual Harassment Comes At A Cost. So Does Speaking Up About It.

And the price is often steepest for the women who can least afford it.

This opinion piece originally appeared on the Huffington Post.

DAVID MCNEW VIA GETTY IMAGES  Demonstrators at the #MeToo Survivors’ March in Los Angeles last month. 

DAVID MCNEW VIA GETTY IMAGES

Demonstrators at the #MeToo Survivors’ March in Los Angeles last month. 

Why do people leave organizations? Reasons often include dealing with bad management, finding a higher paid role elsewhere, or not seeing opportunities for promotion and growth. Workplace sexual harassment is rarely treated as an issue of retention, but it affects morale and career satisfaction at least as drastically as an issue like a difficult boss. 

Sexual harassment is one of the many ways workplaces are a hostile environment for women, pushing them out of organizations and sometimes entire industries. And sexual harassment clearly reflects the power structures that define our society. It exacts a high cost on all individuals and communities, but the price is disproportionately shouldered by women who can least afford it. Women of color and other marginalized women are among those hit hardest by a culture that for generations has turned a blind eye to the epidemic.  

Workplace sexual harassment comes with a steep cost: the cost of participation.

A 2008 study by the American Psychological Association found a correlation between “work withdrawal” and the aftermath of sexual harassment for black women. And in a 2016 survey of the Chicago leisure and hospitality industry, where the majority of women are of color, 49 percent of housekeepers said a guest had answered the door naked or exposed themselves. The most damning result? Of those housekeepers, 56 percent said they did not feel safe returning to work after the incident.

The system was failing these women. Formal report numbers were low, partly because the workers didn’t believe it would make a difference to tell their stories. In fact, 43 percent of respondents said they knew someone who had reported harassment and seen nothing change. Unfortunately, their fears are well-founded. Two-third of employees who spoke out against workplace mistreatment faced some sort of retaliation, according to a 2003 study cited by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. And although times are changing, they might not be changing for women in certain workplaces just yet. 

When marginalized women, particularly women of color, need solidarity, their white sisters don’t often show up.

The outpouring of recent allegations of sexual harassment and subsequent consequences for some perpetrators have prompted many to say we’re in the middle of a turning point in how sexual harassment is dealt with. This is true for some women, but not for all.

When allegations against Harvey Weinstein and other powerful men turned Hollywood upside down, Jane Fonda pointed out the obvious: The women speaking out were being listened to because they were famous and white.

Fatima Goss Graves, the CEO of the National Women’s Law Center, agreed, saying, “Class and race and stature play into whether someone is believed.”

Ironically, the #MeToo movement was started a decade ago by black social activist Tarana Burke. It took Alyssa Milano, a white actress, using the hashtag for it to go viral ― among other white women, at least. We’ve seen this before, such as in the racism of the suffragettesFEMEN’s attempts to “liberate” Muslim women despite protests, and the exclusive nature of the Women’s March. When marginalized women, particularly women of color, need solidarity, their white sisters don’t often show up.

We have seen this play out in the cases of black actresses like Lupita Nyong’o and Aurora Perrineau. The implication is clear: Yes, women who allege sexual harassment and other forms of abuse are to be believed ― if they’re the right kind of woman. The majority of women don’t fit that criteria, and those who live and work at the intersections of marginalization ― whether due to race, religion or disability ― are often hardest hit by harassment. Unfortunately, they’re also the least supported. The eventual outcome is dismal.  

For women who are not famous, wealthy or otherwise influential, socioeconomic, cultural and historical disadvantages compound to make it more likely that harassment will occur and less likely that it will be taken seriously. 

The history of sexual exploitation through slavery has created a culture where black women are more likely to be sexually harassed but less likely to be perceived as victims. They are therefore less likely to report, and the cycle continues. Socioeconomic status exacerbates this vulnerability; the majority (58 percent, as of 2013) of low-income families in the U.S. are a racial or ethnic minority. Low-income women of color often lack bargaining power, face language and financial barriers to accessing legal services, and in some cases, are not even aware of their rights. Undocumented workers also face unique additional challenges, as fears of retaliation or deportation may deter them from taking legal action.

It is imperative to acknowledge that efforts to improve the lot of one group of women may only tangentially affect women in other groups.

It is imperative to acknowledge that efforts to improve the lot of one group of women may only tangentially affect women in other groups.

If we are truly interested in building a world where all women feel safe, supported and able to fully participate in their communities and workplaces, we must remember a rising tide does not lift every woman’s boat. We need to be proactive in our advocacy for low-wage women and women of color. We must ensure vulnerable women are provided adequate training, in the language they are most comfortable in, so they understand their rights. The more educated a workplace is, the less likely potential perpetrators will be to think they can get away with harassment. We need to find ways to support these women ― legally, financially, emotionally ― when action is taken.  

The #MeToo moment will be incomplete if it serves only the white, wealthy and otherwise privileged among us. Look around in your own workplace and make sure no woman is being overlooked. Failing to do so will not only affect the women as individuals, but will ultimately damage our workplaces, our communities and our societies. We will all be poorer for it.

What do we learn from the black outs in South Australia?

Source: The Australian

I wrote this piece early this year, before the Elon Musk twitter storm that led to theTesla battery installation a couple of days ago. It appeared in the latest edition of The Stick, and given the chat around the battery installation, I thought it was worth re-sharing the piece, and thinking about the impact of these recent developments beyond the novelty.


On September 28, 2016, South Australia was hit by a once-in-50-year storm. Despite being a world-leader in integrating intermittent renewable energy generation into a constrained electricity grid, the state’s energy system was tested by the extreme weather event.

Over 40 per cent of South Australia’s energy is generated by wind and solar power, and there are no longer any coal-fired power stations operating in the state. The only back up power comes from the neighbouring state of Victoria, heavily dependent on brown coal. Unfortunately for South Australia, and the advocates of renewable energy, the storm caused the state to lose all power. The statewide black out, which dragged on for days, was an unprecedented and catastrophic engineering failure. However, South Australia’s failure should not be seen as the failure of the renewables transition. Instead, it is a prime opportunity to understand the delicate engineering challenge of integrating new, intermittent and asynchronous sources of power into ageing infrastructure reliant on conventional power generation. Understanding what happened in South Australia enables us to understand what is possible with today’s current technologies, and what truly stands in the way of a complete transition to a carbon neutral future.

So what happened on that fateful Wednesday afternoon?

According to the Australian Energy Market Operator (AEMO)’s final report into the events, South Australia’s series of woes began with two tornadoes with gale force winds of 260km/hr knocking out three major transmission lines. When a transmission line is damaged, it often short circuits. As a result of such a “fault”, the line almost immediately disconnects, protecting the rest of the system. Almost. For a fraction of a second, the voltage dips in the grid, and it was these voltage dips that lead to the cascading failure of the system.

Typically, power generators — whether wind, gas or otherwise — are designed to “ride-through” a voltage dip, allowing them to continue to operate through a fault. However, unbeknownst to the AEMO, responsible for operating energy markets and power systems, several wind farms in South Australia had been set up with a protection feature limiting their tolerance for disturbances. If the number of faults in a specified period of time exceeded a pre-set limit — for instance, two faults in two minutes — the safety mechanism activates and a wind turbine will either reduce its output, stop operating or disconnect from the network. Strangely, this critical protection feature had been left out of all simulation models submitted to AEMO, so the market operator had no idea that their wind turbines were vulnerable to disconnection due to voltage dips.

The damage wrought by the weather caused six voltage dips to occur over a two minute period. Without warning, nine wind farms activated their protection features and 456MW, or almost a quarter of South Australia’s energy demand, was lost from the system. The remainder of South Australia’s generation was wind and “slow responding thermal” (gas), and therefore unable to pick up the slack in time. Instead, Victoria, the neighbouring state, which was already providing 24 per cent of South Australia’s electricity requirements at the time, began to compensate. During the seven seconds of power loss from the wind farms, the system began to draw significantly more electricity than the single interconnector between the two states could handle.

It was like trying to light a football field from a single powerpoint, blowing the proverbial fuse. The interconnector tripped, and Australia’s fourth largest state became an “electrical island”. The entire population of 1.7 million was plunged into darkness. It was known as a Black System event, and it took 13 days for the last of the remaining customers to have their power restored.

South Australia’s Black System ushered in weeks of finger pointing and blame shifting among politicians, energy operators, pundits and consumers. Conservative politicians blamed renewable energy, renewable energy purists blamed the market operators and the majority of the state and nation simply wanted the problem to be solved.

Part of why the South Australian example is so important is because it is tackling what is known within the industry as the “energy trilemma”. This is the tension between energy security (reliability), equity (affordability and accessibility) and environmental sustainability. As we move importantly and inevitably towards sustainability, there can be no question that energy security and equity will be tested. How they balance out is being watched very closely.

From an engineer’s perspective, the focus is often squarely on reliability. The challenge of integrating intermittent renewable power generation sources into a system that hasn’t been designed for it means the energy supply is not always as resilient, and therefore, potentially less reliable. This poses a significant political risk for leaders and often the argument for baseload coal and gas generation is offered as a solution. However, in this case, AEMO found the operations of the gas generators had little to no material effect on the event, to the dismay of renewable energy opponents. Yet a quarter of the state’s energy was coming from Victoria, largely powered by brown coal. So although South Australia may not have coal-fired power stations within its borders, it is still in some way dependent on their operation for baseload power. The answer for the perfect mix of power generation is certainly not clear cut.

What is clearer however, are the broader consequences of such an event and the potential loss if it is interpreted incorrectly. The lessons learnt from these massive engineering failures provide invaluable insight into how to design out a system’s weaknesses. Technical industries rely heavily on learning from major incidents; the oil and gas industry, for example, designed many safety systems from lessons learnt after Piper Alpha in 1988 and Macondo in 2010. The opportunity here to improve the system and avoid a similar incident in the future not only benefits South Australia, but can also have a global impact. By demonstrating how renewable sources of energy can be integrated into an ageing electricity grid, South Australia is providing a blueprint for the energy transition globally.

That is, if the interpretation of the event and the subsequent discussion remains true to the technical findings.

Unfortunately for engineers, the reality of the energy trilemma means that the technical solutions alone are not always enough, and run the risk of getting lost in posturing and agendas. The political and economic challenges are steep. Tackling these requires moving away from blatant and dogmatic ideological approaches to a view that is committed to achieving the optimum balance of sustainability, affordability and reliability. This may mean not turning of all fossil fuel powered generators tomorrow, but it also means not shying away from pushing for the carbon neutral future that we need to survive. For whether we like it or not, if we don’t get sustainability right, there may not be a world for us to live in where affordability and reliability matter at all.

Thanks for reading! This is my first technical piece, so please share any thoughts / feedback / comments below! ❤

BLOG: Empowering women to reach society’s full potential


SDG 3: Achieve gender quality and empower all women and girls

Imagine a new men’s toilet block being commissioned for your local sports club. The old toilet facilities have fallen into disrepair, and the governing council of the club announces it is time for a refurbishment. The governing council of this sporting club also happens to be all women.

When it comes to confirming the design of facilities, it is unanimously agreed that they will be exactly the same as the newly designed women’s facilities. Those facilities, the council reasoned, had come out quite nicely. 'Everyone' was pleased with the result.

The men in the club were uncomfortable with the outcome but were told by the governing council that their perspectives had been taken into account. Even though no men had been involved in the decision-making process, they were told this was the best solution for all.

Now, that does not make sense, you might think. Why would a group of women decide on the design of facilities on behalf of the men? How could they do that without even properly consulting them?

Of course it doesn’t make sense. That is the point.

The above scenario would almost never occur in real life because often, the reality is in fact the opposite. It’s not just with infrastructure projects - this is the way decisions are made for and about women living in almost every society, every day. Choices that directly and indirectly affect women’s lives - whether as obvious as a toilet block design or as obscure as the lighting at public transport stops - are often made without women’s involvement, and as such, the outcomes are often unfit for purpose. At the very best, they silently marginalise the community they are meant to serve. To combat this and make the resulting infrastructure fit for purpose, engineers need to ensure that they have input from all sections of the community they are serving.

This is one of the reasons why the UN’s fifth Sustainable Development Goal (SDG 5), to achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls, is incredibly important. Full and effective participation of women in both engineering projects as well as in leadership roles - and equal opportunity across the board: political, economic and social - is imperative to an optimally functional and cohesive society. One of the reasons, but not the only one.

Full and effective participation is not only about ensuring societies’ infrastructure is designed in a way that is fit for purpose. Like many teams, the whole becomes more than the sum of the parts. When women are empowered and have access to participation and leadership, all of society benefits, and some of these benefits we should not do without.

The statistics speak for themselves

The International Labour Organisation suggests that women’s work may 'be the single most important factor in reducing poverty in developing economies'.

Christian C. Dezsö and David Gaddis Ross argued in 2011 that firms with females at the senior executive level added $44 million to the company’s value.

The World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report shows that for many countries, raising women’s workforce participation to the same level as men’s could raise GDP (gross domestic product) per capita by significant amounts – in Egypt for example, by 34%.

The book, Sex and World Peace1, suggests that the 'very best indicator and predictor of a state’s peacefulness is not wealth, military expenditures or religion, but how well its girls and women are treated'. The book goes on to argue, using 148,000 data points over 375 variables for 175 countries, that 'the full and complete development of a country, the welfare of the world and the cause of peace require the maximum participation of women on equal terms with men in all fields'.

So not only does full and effective participation of women in leadership mean better suited and more sustainable infrastructure, which will arguably lead to safer and more inclusive communities, it will also be economically and politically beneficial for countries across the board.

Men and women may have differing ways of engaging with leadership, different leadership styles and may want different types of opportunities. The question is not about how the opportunity looks or presents itself, but that it truly exists in the first place.

At the end of the day, roughly half the population is made up of women, or those who identify as women. Society simply cannot function at its full potential if only half the talent is being utilised. It is incumbent upon us that we allow every possible opportunity for the other half of the talent to participate and to lead. Together, we can work towards a world that looks after us all.


1 - Sex and World Peace, Valerie Hudson, Bonnie Ballif-spanvill, Mary Caprioli and Chad Emmett, 2014

Right of Reply: A Call for Difficult Conversations, Not Censorship

In case you missed it, I wrote a reply in the New York Times to Lionel Shriver's piece, and also to further clarify the points I made in the original Medium/Guardian essay.

To the Editor:

Re “Will the Left Survive Millennials?,” by Lionel Shriver (Op-Ed, Sept. 23):

My initial response to Ms. Shriver’s keynote address at the Brisbane Writers Festival last month — walking out and writing about why — seemed to be largely misunderstood. Many took the reaction to be a call for censorship and responded with fury. They took as a given the right to say and write what they want, without critique, consequence or interrogation of intent.

The debate is not about censorship: People can write in the voices they please. The real question is whether they should. It is about the structures that define the world in which we live and work.

Fiction does not exist in a vacuum: It becomes people’s realities, because so often the only exposure we have to those with very different lived experiences to our own is through stories. But this discussion is larger than the world of fiction.

Ms. Shriver claimed that those who now fight for equality have become the oppressor. Her words betrayed a disappointment that the times are changing, and lamented that people are so terrified of being caught saying the wrong thing that they instead choose not to say anything at all.

This must be the same censorship that sees her books published, her keynote addresses delivered and her Op-Ed article published in The New York Times. Her perspective betrayed a deep fragility, born out of the fear of change. To those with privilege, equality may feel like oppression. But equality need not be a zero-sum game. Framing it so seeks to divide and ultimately to halt progress.

Yes, the times are changing. Millennials, like me, are agitating for us all to be better, and that should come with the acceptance that nobody is beyond reproach. Difficult conversations will make us all uncomfortable. Good. That discomfort is how we improve, how we render the best characters, best stories, how we create the most equitable societies.

So rather than making broad, sweeping generational assessments, how do we move forward? We can start with intent. Is the intent to preserve the status quo, or to demand more?

YASSMIN ABDEL-MAGIED

Melbourne, Australia

 

Why We Must Listen to Hanson, Trump and Leave supporters.

So a couple of things have happened in the last few weeks that have caused my Facebook feed to lose its collective mind.

The first was Brexit.  The media post the vote (which apparently, no-one took seriously) bordered on openly derisive towards Leave voters.  

I love Trevor Noah as much as the next third-culture-kid, but he was just one of the many whose commentary post-vote was essentially, 'how could they do this, don't they know what is good for them?'

Now hold onto that thought, and how the tone might play out.

The second thing that happened was Pauline Hanson's election to the Senate. If you haven't heard of Pauline before, here is a taste of her world view.

Again, her supporters have been labelled as xenophobic, ignorant, racist, etc etc. 

She's tapping into the populism that has fed the Brexit, and the same that is supporting Trump! On this, the general commentariat is agreed.  

Now check out this video... and I want you to listen to what Pauline has to say about 'grass roots Australia'.

Hold on a minute... Start listening to grass roots Australians! ...I know what the people are thinking and how they’re feeling... Let’s get the kids jobs and pull it together as one!
— Pauline Hanson

Now I don't share the world views or policy platforms of Pauline Hanson, Drumpf or Leave voters in any way, shape or form.  However, I think it is incredibly dangerous to ignore and deride those we disagree with. When has derision ever worked to persuade someone to your perspective? 

The question then becomes - well, if we are not to deride and ignore, what to do? How do we deal with these vast feelings of frustration, hurt and exasperation? 

Honestly, I think what we *must* do is start by truly listening. 

Pauline is right on one thing. Leaders haven't been listening to what sections of the population have been trying to say, and so the 'unheard' have taken to yelling in the only way that seems to get the attention of progressives and intellectual elite (a social segment for the purposes of this argument) - by voting in ways that will hurt them - despite what said elite say is 'logical' and 'rational' and 'good'.   

Listening doesn't mean agreeing. But what it might help us to do is *understand* why populism is taking on the hold is has, and understand what needs to be done to tackle it.  

Who is this group? Well on that I don't have a definitive answer, and smarter people than me are working on nailing down the exact demographics. There are some interesting leads though... Check this graph out. 

Note the blue line; inequality within country groups.  It is relatively flat (although increasing slightly) during the industrial revolution, but takes a definite dive during the early 20th century. it gets pretty flat again during the period following the second world war... and then it starts rising in recent decades. The world starts seeing an increase in inequality within countries from about the 1970's. Globalisation has been around for a while by this point, but an interesting reflection is the change in the cost of flying.

According to the Atlantic, 'in 1965, no more than 20 percent of Americans had ever flown in an airplane. By 2000, 50 percent of the country...the number of air passengers tripled between the 1970s and 2011.'

So the crudest way of looking at this is that in the last 40 or 50 years, people have started to increasingly look different in countries (because it was just easier to access different places on planes and thus the link to the anti-immigration sentiment), and coincidentally inequality within countries increased, yet everyone was being told that what was happening in the world was good for them.

What was happening in the world was good for the world, yes. The graphs above demonstrate that on the whole, the world is less unequal (there are less people at the super poor end of the spectrum). 

What hasn't changed though, is the fortune of the poorer people in the richest nations.  The people who globalisation (in the modern, airplane driven sense) hasn't really helped. The ones who have lost positions of privilege and power due to the improving status of the world but who have not been swept up with the tide. The ones who in some sense, feel like the world is forgetting them and leaving them behind. The ones who were once proud of their identity and place in the world, and are searching for that feeling once again. 

Their vote is equal to everyone else's, and they are some of the people that aren't being heard.

Being unheard - silenced even - is not a fun place for anyone to be.  


Inequality is frightening. I truly believe it is one of the most toxic ailments that can afflict a society and so much of what is at the root of the current wave of populism is due to the increasing levels of inequality within nations. Watch the video below (click through) to hear some of the reasons why I think we must keep talking about this deep disease. 

Why inequality is not okay.

Why inequality is not okay.

So what does this have to do with not laughing at Pauline Hanson's voters?  

It's about reminding us to think about the long game. To think about why people are at the stage they are at, and realising that rather than derision, they deserve - like anyone else - to be listened to and heard. That is the minimum we owe. We may disagree, but what is more important is then to tap into that and dig deeper - why are you feeling the pain you are feeling? What in our systems is causing this entrenched and divisive societal ailment? What can we change?

Our societies are meant to be built to protect the lower income ends of society.  It is not supposed to exploit them until they have no way of speaking out and thus turn to being societally destructive.

The world is being served some timely reminders. It is also worth noting that the relative peace and harmony we have been working on and have enjoyed for the past few decades has only occurred because people worked at it.  Harmony doesn't just happen; social cohesion is a constant project and we all need to roll up our sleeves and get stuck into it, on the daily. A socially cohesive society starts with understanding and respect, and a vision that is about the greater good and systems that reinforce that belief. 

We've got some work to do. Khair inshallah...